One of the most popular American artists of the past century, Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) was a keen observer of human nature and a gifted storyteller. For nearly seven decades, whilehistory was in the making all around him, Rockwell chronicled our changing society in the smalldetailsand nuanced scenes of ordinary people in everyday life, providing a personalized interpretation—albeit often an idealized one—of American identity. His depictions offered a reassuring visual haven during a time of momentous transformation as our country evolved into a complex, modern society. Rockwell’s contributions to our visual legacy, many of them now icons of American culture, have found a permanent place in our national psyche.
February 3, 1894 marked the birth of one of America’s most beloved artists, Norman Percevel Rockwell. Norman Rockwell was born in his parent’s Upper West Side Manhattan apartment.
The second son of businessman Jarvis Waring and Ann Mary (Hill) Rockwell, young Norman showed talent from the beginning. In fact, Rockwell remembered his first sketches as drawings of warships from the Spanish-American war. Jarvis Waring enjoyed reading various literary masterpieces aloud to his family, especially the works of classic author Charles Dickens. Young Norman would attentively listen as he sketched the characters while his father read the story aloud.
Creative talent is a hard thing to repress; some say that art “flows” out of artists. Rockwell was no different. During his high school years, he studied at the Chase School of Fine and Applied Art, every Saturday and most Wednesdays. Rockwell’s love for art was steadily growing at this point and, during his sophomore year, he left high school to attend the National Academy of Design. He described the school as “stiff and scholarly,” opting to transfer to the Art Students League in 1910.
Rockwell’s years at the Art Students League proved fruitful for the young painter/illustrator. At the tender age of sixteen, and still a student at the Art Students League, he painted his first commission of four Christmas cards. The following year he accepted his first real job as an artist illustrating the “Tell me Why Stories,” a series of children’s books. Shortly after that he was hired as the art director of “Boys’ Life” magazine, the official publication of the Boy Scouts of America. Rockwell continued his work with the Scouts, illustrating the official Boy Scout calendar for fifty years.
Following his success with the “Tell Me Why Series,” Rockwell moved to New Rochelle, New York and set up a studio with cartoonist Clyde Forsythe. He began freelancing his services to magazines such as “Life,” “Literary Digest” and “County Gentleman.” As his portfolio grew, so did his confidence in his artwork. In 1916 the 22 year-old Rockwell mustered up some courage and sold his first cover to "The Saturday Evening Post," perhaps the most prestigious magazine of that era. The picture was of an uncomfortable, young boy wearing a bowler hat, dressed somewhat maturely for his age and diligently pushing a baby carriage past a group of sneering boys in baseball uniforms. The artwork, entitled “Mother’s Day Off,” ran on the cover of the May 20, 1916 issue; that same year he married his first wife, teacher Irene O’Connor. Their marriage ended in 1928.
Americans were extremely receptive to Rockwell’s "Saturday Evening Post" covers. In fact, Rockwell went on to create 321 covers for the Post, each portraying typical American life and values. His covers were so successful that when his art appeared on the cover, 50,000 – 75,000 additional copies of the Saturday Evening Post sold at newsstands. "The Saturday Evening Post" covers eventually became his greatest legacy. For an artist in the first half of the 20th century, Rockwell did extremely well. By the onset of World War I, he was making $40,000 per year. Remarkably his salary never went below that point, even during the Great Depression.
The 1930s proved to be an amazing decade for Rockwell. In 1930 he married Mary Barstow. The couple moved to Arlington, Vermont and had three sons together: Jarvis, Thomas and Peter. In the mid-1930s Rockwell was approached to illustrate new editions of the Mark Twain classics “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer.” Always taking his work to the next level, Rockwell traveled to Hannibal, Missouri, the setting for most of Twain’s legendary novels, to depict more realistic illustrations for Twain’s fictional adventures. While there he created sketches of the city and brought home authentic regional costumes for models to wear while he painted his illustrations.
Through the years, Rockwell’s renditions of Americana appeared all over the world. During World War II he painted his widely-loved series the “Four Freedoms” as his personal contribution to the war effort. The patriotic paintings symbolized the war aims President Roosevelt set forth. The “Four Freedoms” were reproduced in four consecutive issues of “The Saturday Evening Post” alongside essays by contemporary American writers. “Freedom of Speech,” “Freedom to Worship,” “Freedom from Want” and “Freedom from Fear” were so successful that the works toured in an exhibition that raised $139.9 million for the war effort through the sales of war bonds.
In 1953 the Rockwell family relocated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts where Mary was treated at the Austen Riggs Center for her declining health. Six years after the move, Mary died unexpectedly. In 1960 Rockwell, with the help of his son Thomas, published his autobiography “My Adventures as an Illustrator.” The book proved to be a success, with excerpts carried in eight consecutive “Saturday Evening Post” issues. In 1961 Rockwell married Mary L. “Molly” Punderson and continued to live in Stockbridge and create his now nostalgic masterpieces.
In 1963, after 47 years at "The Saturday Evening Post," Rockwell parted ways with the magazine. He went to work for "Look" magazine almost immediately. There he was able to express his deepest concerns and interests, such as civil rights and the war on poverty.
Some of Rockwell’s most powerful creations came out of his years with "Look." One such piece was inspired by the unjust murders of three civil rights workers near Philadelphia, Mississippi. The painting, “Southern Justice,” was done in 1965 and depicts the horror endured by three young men, two white and one black, who had come to Mississippi in the fight for equality. One man is seen lying dead in the foreground; the next is standing in the glow of the attacker’s torch while defending the third man, who appears near death. Another, entitled “The Problem We All Live With” depicts a young black girl in a white dress being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals. Of his gripping and powerful illustrations for "Look," Rockwell wrote: “For 47 years, I portrayed the best of all possible worlds – grandfathers, puppy dogs – things like that. That kind of stuff is dead now, and I think it’s about time.
Bernard Dannenberg Galleries of New York City organized a retrospective show of Rockwell’s work in 1971. The artist went on to establish a trust to protect his personal collection of paintings in 1972. He placed his works in the Old Corner House Stockbridge Historical Society, which later became the Norman Rockwell Museum in a dedication ceremony on February 3, 1994, the 100th anniversary of Rockwell’s birth.
July 1976 brought Rockwell’s last published work, the cover of “American Artist.” He painted himself draping a “Happy Birthday” banner on the Liberty Bell in observance of the Fourth of July and the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In 1977 President Gerald R. Ford presented Rockwell with the country`s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom . The award was given for Rockwell’s “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.
On November 8, 1978 Norman Rockwell died in his Stockbridge home at the age of 84, leaving an unfinished painting on his easel. His now nostalgic paintings and illustrations continue to live on in American history, depicting decades of pleasantry and pain. A second edition of his autobiography was published in 1988, with new material from Tom Rockwell, covering the final 20 years of his father’s life. Norman Rockwell`s ability to relate to the values and events of an evolving society made him a hero, a visionary and a friend, not only to Americans but also to individuals all over the globe. In his own words, "Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed."